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Where to stay in Costa Rica

Choosing where to stay in Costa Rica? Get to know the best jungle lodges, beach towns and city stays before deciding.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/kansasphoto
By Duncan Madden |
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Listing Costa Rica’s natural wonders, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a paradise too perfect to be possible. From climbing majestic volcanic peaks to surfing barrels on Caribbean and Pacific coasts, ziplining through cloud forest canopies to farm-to-table dining in underrated San José, its diversity of things to do is its strength.

Famously peaceful, welcoming and eco-aware – it aims to be the world’s first completely carbon neutral country by 2021 – Costa Rica caters best to laid-back, nature-loving travelers with a sense of adventure and a healthy appetite. Here are five distinctly different locations that typify the warm and welcoming Costa Rica experience.

Where to stay in Costa Rica

Nosara
Photograph: Shutterstock

Nosara

Firmly clamped between jungle and beach in the Nicoya Peninsula, hip and healthy Nosara is making a name for itself. Amble down the dusty streets and you’ll encounter eco hotels, yoga studios, surf shops and good eating that lures families, surfers, stoners and sun-seekers from all four corners to its shores. Life moves at a pace unchecked by clocks and deadlines, and the trick is to make the most of it. Slip off your shoes, shake off your worries and let the good vibes wash over you.

STAY

Chilled out and back to nature is the mantra here, with plenty of hotels and lodges offering both. For something simple and cozy, try the jungle-set Living Hotel, or if you’re after a little more luxury with your laid back, the beautiful Harmony Hotel takes prime position right on Playa Guiones.

EAT

In the humid jungle, nothing cools like a great gelato. The brilliantly named Seekretspot on Playa Pelada serves the best in town. For an atmospheric evening meal with the sand between your toes, cocktails in hand and fresh fish (or awesome wood-fired pizza) on your plate, look no further than La Luna.

DRINK

On the beach at Playa Pelada, rough-and-ready Bar Olga’s has a deserved reputation for cold beers, great sunsets and a lively crowd of locals and tourists happily rubbing shoulders. For something more refined, most restaurants offer cocktails and the newly refurbished, très chic  Gilded Iguana is earning a reputation for great margaritas.

DO

Nosara’s star attraction is the fabulous undeveloped Playa Guiones – a crescent shaped stretch of sand littered with tide pools, amazing rock formations, great surf, warm waters and, amazingly, few crowds. If you surf, bring your board. If you don’t, bring a book and your shades, and get ready to embrace beach life – pura vida, baby!

If you do just one thing…

Take an early morning horseback ride from Playa Guiones up into the jungle and back down onto Playa Pelada beach to see the full gamut of Nosara’s beauty close up. Boca Nosara Tours are the best and will set you up with a healthy, well-looked-after steed suited to your saddle skills.

Arenal Volcano National Parkskytrek

La Fortuna

Amid thriving rainforests and in the shadow of the awesome Arenal Volcano, once-sleepy La Fortuna may have been engulfed by tourists but is still a lively and convenient base from which to explore the region’s natural wonders. From here you can hike, bike, fly, float and ride your way through jungles, lava fields, waterfalls and thermal pools before recuperating in quirky-but-cool coffee houses, craft-brew bars, trendy eateries and boutique lodges.

STAY

Huge and often awful resorts dot the landscape around Arenal, but La Fortuna and its surrounds have far more fun and quirky places to stay. Try the lofty Tree Houses Hotel, where you can sleep in comfort in a 70-hectare wildlife refuge complete with waterfalls, natural swimming pools and inquisitive neighboring monkeys.

EAT

Streets are overflowing with fast-food outlets, pizza palaces, sushi and local cafés ranging in quality and price. Soda Viquez and Soda Mima serve some great vegetarian casados (local set dishes) with the vibe to match. For a meatier feast, head to the indoor-outdoor grill at hip Restaurante Don Rufino.

DRINK

Lots of tourists means a lively bar scene and plenty of street drinking. Many congregate at La Cascada, a local palapa-roofed institution by the Parque de la Fortuna. La Fortuna Pub specialises in Tico artisanal beers and often brews its own small batches, which disappear fast down thirsty throats.

DO

In the middle of a natural adventure playground, there are lots of trails through the Arenal Volcano National Park – but taking a guided tour is the best way to make the most of it. A volcano hike will take you through the jungle and onto the lava fields before you have the opportunity to soak those weary muscles in a thermal hot spring.

If you do just one thing…

Hurl yourself through the jungle canopy on a Sky Trek – a series of seven ziplines, the last of which is nearly 2,500 feet long. You’ll get breathtaking views above the jungle canopy, see exotic birds and – if you’re really lucky – spot monkeys up close in the branches.

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Selina

San José

Often treated as little more than a transport hub on the way to the coast, San José is an overlooked treasure well worth a few days of your time. Look past the shabby exterior and frantic traffic to find a blooming gastronomic scene with local chefs and microbreweries making their mark. Dine out in fashionable Barrio Escalante, explore elaborate colonial mansions in historic Barrio Amón, dance the night away in San Pedro and you’ll see why Costa Rica’s capital is worth taking time over.

STAY

San José’s best assets are its parks, and the achingly hip Selina San José in historic and vibrant Barrio Otoya is only steps from the botanical gardens. Don’t let its hostel status put you off: there are private rooms and suites, a rooftop terrace, live music and a lively (rather than studenty) atmosphere.

EAT

Foodie heaven is summed up in Barrio Escalante where 50-plus restaurants tempt your tastebuds in the streets around Calle 33. With so much so close, it’s best to wander and let your nose guide you, but for a safe bet chef Camille Ratton’s Kalú is a charming space serving delicious fusion fare with a healthy Costa Rican influence.

DRINK

The craft and microbrewing scene has been growing steadily. Stay in Barrio Escalante for post (or pre!) dinner drinks at hipster haunts Apotecario and Wilk. Look for local brews by Treintaycinco and Volcano Brewing Company.

DO

Learn about the art and artisans of Central America at Galería Namu and pick up an indigenous original. Then turn your attention to the grandeur of the National Museum, in a former fortress, where you can see one of the world’s largest jade collections framed by bullet holes in the walls that date back to the civil war.

If you do just one thing…

Pack a picnic and light sweater (San José’s elevation means it can get cool in the evenings) and head to the huge Parque Metropolitano La Sabana for early evening sundowners and snacks. Find a spot near the rainbow eucalyptus trees and marvel at the sun-drenched colors as nature works its magic.

Manzanillo

Manzanillo

Tucked away in the postcard-pretty Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge on the southern end of the Caribbean Coast, sits quiet Manzanillo. Infused with Afro-Caribbean culture, engulfed in pristine surroundings and fringed by the bath-warm waters and vibrant coral reefs of the Caribbean Sea, it’s a protected haven providing space to step away from the world. Outdoor activities reign supreme here – scuba dive with manatees, scream along with howler monkeys or just stretch out and snooze on miles of golden sands.

STAY

Understated lodges and hostels dot the coastline, some more remote than others. The wonderfully named Congo Bongo Ecolodges strike a perfect balance – a scenic ten-minute stroll from the beach and less to the markets and cafés in Manzanillo town. The lovely Almonds and Corals Hotel is even closer to both and brings wellness and spa treatments with it.

EAT

Since it’s home to only 300 people, Manzanillo’s food options aren’t prolific, but they are tasty. The ramshackle Cool & Calm Café serves consistently great Caribbean cuisine – think veggie curry and amazing lobster caribeño – to a constant reggae soundtrack. Owner Andy is also renowned for his fantastic hospitality.

DRINK

The drinking scene starts a few miles up the coast at nearby Puerto Viejo. Check out popular and loud Lazy Mon at Stanford’s or swing by ‘the most dangerous bar in town’, Tex Mex – so called in reference to its lethal Cuba libres. Or stay in Manzanillo, take a drink to the beach and kick back there.

DO

Break free from the land and head for the seas! No matter if you’re a scuba diver or snorkeler, the reefs are a show not to be missed. Off beautiful, secluded Manzanillo Beach keep an eye out for dolphins and in particular the leatherback, hawksbill and green sea turtles that nest on the sands from February to May.

If you do just one thing…

Diving isn’t for everyone, but anyone can kayak – and there are few better places to do it than along the Manzanillo coast. Pack some snacks (and plenty of water), head out in the late afternoon when the sun has cooled and the waters are calm to enjoy the show as the sun explodes across the sky. Ask about riptides before you go.

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Puerto Jiménez

Puerto Jiménez

Served by its own domestic airport, far-flung Puerto Jiménez is surprisingly easy to reach despite its remote, Wild West feel. Once a booming gold-mining and logging town, nowadays it’s more in tune than exploitative when it comes to the environment. And what an environment it is. On one side are the crystal Pacific waters of the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf) on the other are the Parque Nacional Corcovado and Osa Peninsula. Keep an eye out for the area’s indigenous scarlet macaws flashing red, blue and yellow in the skies.

STAY

Plush Iguana Lodge is just a couple of miles out of Jiménez on the gorgeous Playa Platanares and offers breezy casitas, a chemical-free pool, jungle spa, new ceramics studio and sloths for neighbors. If you’re car-free, simple B&B Hotel Inn Jiménez still feels secluded but is smack-bang in downtown and, crucially for some, offers AC.

EAT

Patacones (fried plantain chips) and seafood are the staples in Jiménez. If you’re feeling adventurous try the barracuda ceviche at local hangout Soda Marbella. For authentic home-cooked Costa Rican fare, try Lily’s beef casado and gallo pinto at Soda Jiménez, washed down with a fresh cold juice and some of the warmest hospitality in town.

DRINK

You’ve come to the ends of the Earth to get away from it all, so go a few steps further to the end of the beachfront road – for cool beers in hand, and toes in warm sand at Los Delfines. Otherwise, go with the flow and stop for refreshments at one of the unnamed roadside shacks, or hope your stay coincides with a rare but raucous full-moon party.

DO

Feed your inner chocoholic with a Rancho Raices organic farm chocolate tour. Owner German (pronounced Her-man) will show you how to make your own chocolate right from the pod before letting you gorge away on your creation.

If you do only one thing…

No matter what time of year you’re there, the waters of Golfo Dulce offer some of the best aquatic wildlife-watching in the world. Rent a boat from a local and head out for the humpback whales (December to April and July to November), whale sharks (April to May) and 100-strong dolphin mega-pods all year round.

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Whether you’re looking for eco lodges and fine-dining or beers on the beach after a sunset surf, the options are endless. So get stuck into Costa Rica at your own pace, because there’s only one thing that matters and you’ll hear it everywhere you go: pura vida, the pure, simple life.

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